The first item in your camera bag
The lens filter. No camera bag should be without at least one.
You've finally pulled the trigger and ordered that sweet DSLR kit you've had your eye on for the past year or so. Now, you're probably poring over accessories that will complement your purchase things like additional lenses, proper cases, tripods and more. And yet, your very first purchase after buying the camera one you should make concurrent with the camera purchase, is something way more pedestrian.
Do you know what it is?
It's a filter.
Yes, I know, filters can give you a multitude of effects and creative looks. But I'm not talking (at least, not yet) about their aesthetic impact.
The front of your camera is a dangerous place
Your lens can be a major investment, and, if you continue as most enthusiasts do in this hobby, you'll soon be shopping for more glass. Unless the lens is a specialty item, like a long telephoto or an extreme wide angle fisheye that doesn't accept screw-on front filters, shopping item #1 needs to be a lens filter that can protect your lens' front element when you take it out into the cruel world.
There are a number of filter types that will serve the purpose well. UV filters, Skylight filters, and neutral color filters can be left on the front of a lens without significantly affecting the color balance as they enter, and they have some additional benefits. UV filters can add clarity to outdoor photos taken with film cameras by reducing haze (digital sensors often filter UV without help).
And Skylights are very slightly pink-straw colored and get rid of bluish components of outdoor light. They can be very useful when taking a portrait in shade, as blue highlights from outdoor situations can be unflattering to skin tones.
A "comb" for your light
Polarizing filters are another must-have in any aspiring enthusiast's kit bag. These filters take the chaotic, scattered, outdoor light waves that translate to our eyes as glare and strong reflections, and tame them into a more manageable, pleasing high contrast image. You've probably owned a pair of polarized lens sunglasses in the past, and don't need to have the glare-inhibiting effect described to you.
The Kenko polarizing filter. It's like
sunglasses for your camera lens.
Rest assured the effect can be more dramatic when used on your camera, and can make a huge difference in bright sunlit shots on the water, or with shots that feature a big sky. Polarizing filters come in two varieties, linear and circular. Most of the time you will want circular, as the linear variety can interfere with the auto-focusing mechanism of many SLR type cameras. The ring on a polarizer filter rotates so that you can adjust the desired effect.
Shut the blinds
The Hoya ND4X HMC Filter reduces flare and
ghosting without distorting the color.
Unheralded, but oh so useful, are the neutral density filters. These filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens by a select number of stops. This lets you open the aperture wider than you normally would in certain lighting situations and ISO settings. You can then change the depth of field (here comes the aesthetic part) to put your perfect portrait's background nicely out of focus in bright light. And these filters do this without altering the color information at all, hence the "neutral" designation.
Protect your investment
There are any number of other special-use filters that have artistic and aesthetic applications, like soft "pro-mist" ones, graduated tobacco and coral filters, and more, but for this article we're sticking to the basic ones every enthusiast should consider.
Filters, like cameras, are available at a variety of prices, and it's wise to buy a good one from a respectable manufacturer, such as Kenko or Hoya. Many camera companies, such as Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony also offer lenses for their cameras. The better lens filters will resist cross-threading and sticking, and feature construction and coatings that minimize things like flares and ghosting. And, they're a cheap insurance policy for protecting the fine technology in most every compatible camera lens.
So make sure you have at least one filter on the front of your camera at all times and consider stocking others for special shooting circumstances. Your lens and your pictures will be better off.